“What has happened since 2016 is unacceptable. HPD as a department owns this problem, and as chief, I will make sure we fix it,” says Houston Police Chief Troy Finner

HOUSTON (AP) – Houston’s police chief pledged Thursday to restore public trust in his department after revelations that over the past eight years, more than 264,000 cases, including more than 4,000 involving sexual assault, were dismissed because of lack of staff.

Last month, Chief Troy Finner announced that hundreds of thousands of incident reports, including sexual assault and property crimes, were never forwarded for investigation because officers assigned them an internal code citing a lack of available staff. This figure represents approximately 10% of the 2.8 million incident reports filed over the past eight years.

“I apologize to the victims, their families and our citizens for the use of the code in cases of sexual assault and other violent crimes against persons,” Finner said at a news conference Thursday. “These are not the trauma-informed and victim-centered services they deserve. I’ll say it again: this code should never have been used and will never be used again.”

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner speaks to the media during a news conference on Thursday, March 7, 2024, at police headquarters about the more than 264,000 cases, including more than 4,000 sexual assault cases, that have been dismissed over the past eight years due to lack of staff. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Finner’s news conference came a day after Mayor John Whitmire announced he would establish an independent panel to review police handling of closed cases, saying the public “wants answers and accountability.”

“How can something like this (code) exist? …I’m shocked by this. This is unacceptable,” Whitmire said.

The internal code, a part of the department’s records management system, was created in 2016, years before Finner took over as chief in April 2021. It was utilized in the 2 administrations that preceded him.

Finner said he first learned of officers’ use of the code in November 2021 and issued an order to stop it. But on February 7 this 12 months, he learned that it was still getting used to dismiss a major variety of adult sexual assault cases.

An internal affairs investigation is looking into why the order to stop using the code was not complied with and the way the code was first used, Finner said.

Two deputy chiefs have already been demoted for their roles within the case. Citing the continued investigation, Finner declined to comment on whether more employees could face disciplinary motion.

He said his department’s top priority is reaching out to people who filed greater than 4,000 sexual assault reports that were suspended. At least 32 officers have been assigned to review these cases, contact people and conduct follow-up interviews.

So far, over 3,000 such cases have been considered and hearings have been scheduled for 133 victims. Police are also working to contact people who’ve filed reports of domestic violence, Finner said.

109,000 reports filed with the essential assault unit and 91,000 for property and financial crimes were also suspended. Finner said 6,537 reports filed with the homicide unit were dismissed, but most of them involved allegations of assault and threats.

Police departments across the country are facing an increasingly urgent staffing crisis as many younger officers retire, older officers retire and the variety of requests for filling vacancies is falling rapidly.

Houston isn’t any exception. Finner said the department, which employs about 5,200 officers, needs a further 2,000 employees to provide enough staff. He added, nevertheless, that this will not be a reason to discontinue a whole bunch of 1000’s of cases.

“What has happened since 2016 is unacceptable. HPD as a department owns this, and as chief, I will make sure we fix it,” Finner said.

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Houston police chief apologizes for department’s failure to investigate 264,000 cases due to staffing problems. First appeared on TheGrio.

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